BASS 2016: Ben Marcus, “Cold Litte Bird” from The New Yorker 10/19/15

It started with bedtime. A coldness. A formality.
Martin and Rachel tucked the boy in, as was their habit, then stooped to kiss him good night.
“Please don’t do that,” he said, turning to face the wall.
They took it as teasing, flopped onto his bed to nuzzle and tickle him.
The boy turned rigid, endured the cuddle, then barked out at them, “I really don’t like that!”
“Jonah?” Martin said, sitting up.
“I don’t want your help at bedtime anymore,” he said. “I’m not a baby. You have Lester. Go cuddle with him.”
“Sweetheart,” Rachel said. “We’re not helping you. We’re just saying good night. You like kisses, right? Don’t you like kisses and cuddles? You big silly.”
… “We love you so much. You know?” Martin said. “So we like to show it. It feels good.”
“Not to me. I don’t feel that way.”
“What way? What do you mean?”
They sat with him, perplexed, and tried to rub his back, but he’d rolled to the edge of the bed, nearly flattening himself against the wall.
“I don’t love you,” Jonah said.
“Oh, now,” Martin said. “You’re just tired. No need to say that sort of stuff. Get some rest.”
“You told me to tell the truth, and I’m telling the truth. I. Don’t. Love. You.”

~~ Complete story available online at TNY

Seriously creepy story. No monsters, no supernatural events, no blood or violence, just a kid who rationally, calmly decides to withdraw from parental affection. How’s a parent supposed to deal with that one? In this story, not well. But… what would well even look like? I suppose the natural approach to this story is to wonder, “What would I do,” but since I’m not a parent, I have no idea what to do with a typical child, let alone a child like this.

Jonah isn’t acting out. He isn’t withdrawing from anyone else – his relationship with his brother and his behavior in school is perfectly normal – and he isn’t disobedient. He’s just hyperrational, as though he’s examined his parents and found them unsuitable as bonding objects so has simply stopped participating in whatever love is. At first, the natural assumption is that he’s been abused, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. At one point he does coldly and calculatedly remind them of the consequences should he confide to a school counselor that his family forces him to hug and cuddle against his will, but don’t get sidetracked: the threat is instrumental (and terrifyingly effective) at obtaining his goal, but his withdrawal doesn’t seem to have anything at all to do with any abuse.

What is a ten-year-old’s meaning of “I love you, Dad” anyway? Admiration of adult capabilities, gratitude for parental duties, familiarity, need, blackmail, mimickry? Granted the existence of a child’s wish to stay close to his parents – and there’s no indication that Jonah wants to leave his home – is that called “love” by default? What is it like when parents are called on it: I don’t dislike you, I want your caretaking, I respect your authority, but I don’t love you.

There’s also a very interesting twist about religion and identity: when Jonah starts reading about trutherism, the natural reaction of his father is to freak out over his son talking about Jewish conspiracies. “Listen to me, you know that we’re Jewish, right?” Martin asks his son. “Not really”, the boy answers, because to him, Jewishness is measured by religious observance that’s been absent from their lives rather than cultural heritage, which doesn’t seem to play that big a part either. I think I could’ve handled that conversation better than Martin did, which was basically, “Because anti-Semites think you’re Jewish.”

It seems to be contagious, this isolation, in effect if not in cause: Martin and Rachel have a sex scene that’s disgusting, not because of any graphic descriptions of hot, sticky animal passion, but because of the total absence of it. The family shows early signs of disintegration.

It’s the rationality that’s creepiest, since it scratches through the millimeter-thick shell of social conditioning we all adopt as part of civilization. The conflict is between Jonah’s newfound stance in rationality, and the parents’ continued existence in emotionality and social convention. I wonder if they’re unable, or merely unwilling to give up the comforts little white lies and niceties allow us, even for a moment, even to understand their son. They simply want him back the way he was yesterday; he simply doesn’t want to come back. Impasse. He’s crossed some barrier, and his parents can’t reach across. Will they learn how, as time goes on? Or are they all stuck, with Jonah in something like a dimensional shift out of a science fiction movie?

The progression of the story is pretty much what you’d expect: a series of attempts by the parents to laugh off, wait through, reason away, and pathologize what’s going on. Something like the five stages of grief, but we never get to acceptance of the “new normal” as Marcus refers to it in his highly informative Page Turner interview. Will they ever get there? Marcus leaves that for the reader to decide.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s